Q&A: Assholery is Apathy

Hello. I have a really bad question cause I’m a really bad writer but how do you make a character seem like an asshole or mean without making it sound too forced and/or fake? I’m a generally nice person (I guess) and have a difficult time writing characters with a mean personality type so any help would be greatly appreciated. (If youve answered this question before or a similar one I apologize and would appreciate if you could point me in the direction of that post)

You’re not a bad writer. Everyone starts someplace. Everyone works with material they’re not familiar with and learn from their experiences. A bad writer is someone who doesn’t even realize they need to ask the question, assumes they already know, and charges full steam ahead without any self-reflection. As a writer learning to think from the perspective of someone else, whose personalities we don’t share and often have difficulty understanding is a learned skill. You are not a negative moral judgement for having limited experience with a personality type, or not understanding that personality.

However, to write from the perspective of a personality you disagree with it is also necessary to reject morality and knee-jerk moral judgements. This is especially true with assholes.

The asshole don’t care.

When it comes to the feelings of others and how their actions are interpreted, the asshole is apathetic. They also don’t care about the consequences or the aftermath of what they say. They don’t see themselves as being mean, to be mean would require they care about someone else’s feelings and they don’t. They don’t give a flying crap about you, how you feel, how you interpret what they’re saying, or about your dog. Or, they’re in a situation where they think everyone is on the same page with the not caring.

How to sell an asshole in fiction and in real life is that oftentimes they are actually fairly accurate with what they say. Yes, what they said was mean, but it was on point. The best insults are the accurate insults, they get into our insecurities and dig their way past our defenses into the very core of who we are. That’s why they hurt. Mean people, successfully mean people as characters in fiction, are daggers and arrows with unerring accuracy that will strike into the very heart of you.

Make no mistake, this is not a state of being. The ability to accurately assess another person and strike without mercy in a way that is both witty and funny is a skill, and you should respect it as one.

Sometimes, assholery is a defense mechanism. Sometimes, it’s learned from parents. Sometimes, it’s the result of an emotionally abusive home. Sometimes, it comes from being bullied. Sometimes, it just evolves on its own. Sometimes, it’s a way of lashing out. Sometimes, it’s just a means of driving other people off. Like everything else, apathy, cruelty, cruel people, mean people, are all products of their environments.  This doesn’t let them off the hook for their actions. Knowing where someone came from and how they got to where they are doesn’t absolve them of the harm they do, but it does help in terms of understanding who the character is.

Your problem, right now, is you think people just are the way they are. This is the problem with ascribing morality to personalities, and looking from the perspective of who they are rather than what they do and why they did it. You’re also looking at social and cultural mores

You got a cruel kid on the playground, there’s a good chance they got it from somewhere or from someone. That, or they know they won’t have to deal with the consequences of what they just did.

However, if you care about either what will happen to you as a result of saying these things or about the other person’s feelings (even in your own head), this is going to be a very difficult character for you to write. You’re going to have to teach yourself to turn society’s judgements off, and find your inner asshole.

Aggressive Asshole – The aggressive asshole is aggressive.

Weaponized Asshole – This is the person who is normal 90% of the time, but when they turn it on they can go. The weaponized asshole uses their assholery as a legit weapon, the same way one might use their fists or blades. Their goal is to make the other person exit as fast as possible. Instead of just saying get out, they’re going to hurt you so you don’t want to be around them anymore. It can be surprising, sudden, and incredibly painful.

Passive Aggressive Asshole – The passive aggressive asshole strikes when you think you’re safe. They come at you sideways. They’re the dagger in the dark, and they’ll let that comment rip the moment you’ve dropped your defenses. In the hands of a master, you’ll find the blade buried in your back with your sense of self annihilated. Their cutting comments are not only highly accurate,  but you’re going to wonder if it happened. This is the assassination style of assholery.

The passive aggressive asshole doesn’t have the courage to be the aggressive asshole or the funny asshole because they know society will strike them hard for acting out. Often, they are white women (all the passive aggressive masters in my family are) and looking for ways to let their inner aggression out. This often someone who has been punished for saying “mean things” and is going to say them anyway, just in ways that can’t be caught.

Regarding women, it’s usually WASP women because societal rules regarding what white women can and can’t say before they’re no longer perceived as acceptable are much stricter than for other groups. When you’re looking for passive aggression, it’s going to come from people whose behavior is heavily moderated and controlled by external forces. The way assholishness asserts itself is heavily dependent on social mores and acceptability, thus ethnicity (more so than race or skin color), culture, and class must be taken into account.

Domineering Asshole – The domineering asshole is the asshole who knows they’re better than you and they’re going to tell you all about it. The worst case scenario with the domineering asshole is that they’re right, and they often are. That’s why they’re an asshole.

Honest Asshole – The honest asshole is someone who is brutally honest when it comes to their opinions. In fact, they don’t even see their opinions as opinions but rather as fact. They will tell you what they think, regardless of whether or not you want to know. And if it’s hurtful? Well, the truth hurts.

Funny Asshole – The funny asshole is very similar to the weaponized asshole and the honest asshole. They say mean and offensive things, yes, but they’re also funny.  And hey, you laughed. See: Denis Leary in all his stand up routines. (Caveat: it is very difficult to write or be the funny asshole. Most assholes who think they’re funny and take refuge in it are just assholes.)

50% Asshole – Can be other shades of asshole, but they’re only an asshole about fifty percent of the time.

Regular Asshole – This is the asshole who turns it on and turns it off, usually at will. They can be any of the other types, but the key to understanding them is they’re assholes to some people and not to others.  They understand what is and isn’t appropriate for social situations. The natural state asshole might be an asshole to their teacher but they’re an asshole to everyone, while the regular asshole is only an asshole to their classmates or only to their teacher or only with their friends when everyone’s an asshole together.

Natural State Asshole – This is the extremely unpleasant asshole, because they do not moderate their assholery and they cannot turn it off. They are an asshole to everyone, all the time. Think, Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.

Beyond assholes, there are a lot of different kinds of mean people out there. Too many to really cover in a single post. I haven’t even covered all the shades of asshole, and there are many more than are here. That is the problem with asking about meanness in general, there are many, many, many shades and they’re all different types.

The two types are those who don’t care and those who want to hurt the other person. It is very important to not mistake one for the other. Sometimes, the asshole hides someone with a fragile self-esteem that’s beating others down to build themselves up. However, this is not always the case. This isn’t even usually the case. Lots of people are this way because they like it, or because they’re rewarded for it, or because the people they surround themselves with are like them. Most assholes are fully aware that what they’re saying hurts others, and they said it either because they wanted to or because they didn’t care if they did.

There is a certain enviable freedom in that, which is why they’re often so attractive as characters. Not because they can be redeemed, but in the ways they encourage others to break free of society’s rules or social etiquette.

Why do girls want bad boys? Because bad boys are far more likely to encourage them to unshackle themselves from society’s constraints and expected good behavior.

Engaging with your inner asshole means learning to act the way you want rather than how society expects. In some ways, it is an act of rebellion. Therefore, the shape the assholery takes and the act of rebellion itself is going to be different from culture to culture. In some, certain versions won’t be a rebellion at all even when they feel like they are. If you don’t understand the culture you’re working with, then understanding the role of the asshole is difficult.

The way you learn how to write “mean people” is by teaching yourself how to say what you want to say without fear of reprisal, even if it’s just in the quiet dark of your mind or on the page.

We all have our own inner mean streak, I have mine and you have yours. You’re caught up on applying moral judgements to yourself over certain kinds of behaviors, which is why you’re not used to exercising it. A mean streak that has not been given air and life, or even acknowledged is not going to be particularly sharp. If you sit there worrying about what others will think of you, then you can’t do it.

True cruelty is art, and built on observational skill. As is the kind that gets others to side with the asshole over the victim. It requires practice. If asshole is not a state you’ve come by naturally, then you’re going to have to learn how to fight through your own internal hangups and tap into those parts of yourself you haven’t let come out to play. Take note of characters in film who are cruel or assholes, and try to mimic them. This will be uncomfortable for you, either because you aren’t used to it or because you’ve been taught not to behave that way.

This starts with writing your character’s saying things you know are inappropriate, and then teaching them or yourself not to care when someone else responds badly. Like everything else, apathy is learned. It is a learning not to care. You can figure out later why they don’t, or what part of their past led them to learn how to cut themselves off, or why they said it. Begin though with saying the thing. Once you’ve uncovered your own particular brand of slumbering assholery, you can begin branching out into others.

The answer to pretending to be something you’re not is that it just takes practice. You learn to access those parts of yourself you intentionally avoid or suppress, then learn through experience and observation how to see through the eyes of others. You’re simulating experiences, and simulation requires experience. The more life experience you have, the more practice you have, and the more research you do, then the better you’re going to be at seeing from different points of view. That isn’t a flaw and it doesn’t make you a bad writer.  You’re just beginning at the beginning, and no one expects a beginner to know everything. Don’t judge yourself for ignorance, recognize ignorance as an opportunity to learn.

Allow yourself to make mistakes on the page, allow yourself to go to far, get in touch with that meanness without internally judging yourself. Think of all the mean things you would’ve said, might have said, wondered if you should have said but didn’t. Then, let them out.

The more you practice, the better you’ll get at writing likeable jerks versus unlikeable ones. You’ll learn how to balance them out, how to be unapologetic about it. Remember, pretending to be something you’re not doesn’t make you that person even when those feelings come from inside you.

TLDR: Just because your characters are shitty people doesn’t mean you are. So, practice makes perfect.


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